The Strange Case of Angelica, The Illusionist

FILM, Film Festivals

Another gem from the Portuguese master; Sylvain Chomet’s beautiful new animation.

To draw attention to Manoel de Oliveira’s age (101) and that he’s been making movies since the silent era seems an unnecessary distraction, when you consider how brilliant his films are. Eccentricities of a Blond Hair Girl was as good as anything released in 2009, while this year’s The Strange Case of Angelica is even better. While reportedly conceived of in the 1950s (a period in which he was largely dormant as a director), it’s hard to ignore the sense of self-eulogy tied into this film, as if Oliveira is confronting his own mortality. He looks at the purpose of art in capturing flashes from the past, and finds himself dancing with the ghosts.

Of course, Oliveira also tells his oddball tale with a sense of humour. From the outset, his confrontation of mortality is set around beautiful young people. Isaac (Ricardo Trêpa) is awoken one night to take photographs of the deceased Angelica by her grieving family. Angelica has passed on, but in the process of taking a photograph Isaac captures a fleeting movement, one that leads to his obsession and unfortunate destruction. Oliveira plays on the relationship between ‘matter’ and ‘antimatter’—binaries that in theory are meant to destroy each when they collide, yet according to his characters, create a special kind of energy. Other binaries—Catholic vs. Jewish, dead vs. alive, sanity vs. insanity, servant vs. master, night vs. day, seated vs. standing—conflict to create this energy, and the narrative’s ability to seamlessly incorporate these elements drives the film.

Death also stalks The Strange Case of Angelica, whether it’s the old men whose manner of work is fast disappearing, or the beautiful people who are dying inexplicably. Isaac photographs them with film (again, the ‘former’ method of documenting the world), leaving his images to hang in the air to dry: outdated ways captured by outdated methods. Indeed, Oliveira’s films have an intended anachronistic quality about them: stilted acting, old-fashioned narratives, and silent era framing, all which feels unusually fresh, the modern and past jarring throughout (like a Dreyer cut that doesn’t match). The film is also firmly situated in the new: CGI (admittedly low grade), and the global economic crisis are all part of Oliveira’s narrative tools.

Oliveira finds freedom through this discordant approach, while his ghosts are cheerful: singing, dancing, working. The Strange Case of Angelica is a film as much about the unashamed pleasure in things as it is about death. Apparitions may haunt Isaac, but he also laments not being able to enjoy the freedom of the present he achieves with Angelica. For Oliveira, death is not something to be frightened of: through art, through a kind of hedonistic pleasure in the now, Oliveira makes yet another profound statement about life.

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French animator Sylvain Chomet’s The Triplets of Belleville was a worldwide hit in 2004, winning over audiences with its skewed animation and whimsical sensibility. Those anticipating his follow-up, The Illusionist, to continue in that vein might be surprised by the film’s downbeat, melancholic tone—unexpected, given it is based on an unrealised Jacques Tati script. Despite this muted turn, Chomet’s stunning animation and mordant humour still shines through; his film by turns a celebration of what once was, and a eulogy for what has now passed.

The Illusionist concerns a nameless music-hall performer in the 50s, whose magic career has begun to dwindle in the face of rock ‘n’ roll and new technology. Visiting an isolated Scottish village the day electricity arrives—a moment in which his career is poised to end at the flick of a switch—he strikes up a friendship with a young girl, and together they try their luck in Edinburgh. Told in near-silent style, like Tati at his best, the film relies on movement and little pieces of incident. Though not as inventive as Tati’s famed set pieces, Chomet’s animation is full of gentle moments that carry the admittedly slight narrative. Tonally akin to The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, there are even a number of visual homages to the Jacques Demy classic to savour.

Chomet captures the time passing through fragile imagery—light, shadows, and considerable detail dance on each frame, yet shift with each fleeting moment passed. He also captures Scotland in a way that makes it seem so romantic, so idiosyncratic. At once a lament and a tribute, rarely has loneliness and depression looked so beautiful.

‘The Strange Case of Angelica’, Dir. Manoel de Oliveira
Portugal/Spain/France/Brazil, 2010; 95 minutes
In Portuguese with English subtitles
Featuring: Ricardo Trêpa, Pilar López de Ayala, Leonor Silveira, Luís Miguel Cintra, Ana Maria Magalhães, Isabel Ruth.
Screening: Auckland, Wellington.
‘The Illusionist’, Dir. Sylvain Chomet
UK/France, 2010; 80 minutes
Screening: Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch, Dunedin. For New Zealand International Film Festival dates, programme details, and screenings in other regions, visit nzff.co.nz. For New Zealand International Film Festival dates, programme details, and screenings in other regions, visit nzff.co.nz.